Blog Post: Why the Pepsi advert and United Airlines debacles prove Boards need a corporate affairs voice

Last week we were all talking about how the Execs at Pepsi managed to approve THAT advert. This week we’re talking about United Airlines. Again. Barely days after miss-handling the incident over leggings, now we are all talking about their response to a viral video of a passenger being forcibly removed from a recent fight, blood stained face and all – a great way to look after customers.

He was removed because the flight was overbooked. Ignoring the issue around how did they not know it was full BEFORE everyone got on, and why drag him by his hair off, it’s their response to the video going viral that is of interest to me. Especially considering the Independent is reporting that United Airlines forcibly removed over 3.5k passengers in 2016, you would have thought they had a pretty good crisis response plan for this.

First of all, here is the CEO of United Airlines Oscar Munoz:

“This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened. We are also reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this situation”

 “Re-accommodate” – I think he means to drag, pull and injure someone while removing them from the flight. While it sounds like PR talk, I hope this wasn’t the work of the PR team, as all it has done is further flame the fire they are already engulfed in. It is also a non-apology apology. He is apologising for having to remove these customers, not for the way it was done (badly) or accepting responsibility for the fault. “reach out”/ ”resolve this situation” – no-one talks like this and it does not come across as particularly sincere. The investigation is a good start (as long as that doesn’t mean kick into the long grass and hope everyone loses interest), but I’m not sure why it needed quite so many words to say there will be a full investigation into what happened.

So as well as there being a viral video being shown across the globe of a United Airlines passenger being assaulted while being forced to leave the plane, we now have the “re-accommodate” response.

United also released the following statement:

 “Flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville was overbooked. After our team looked for volunteers, one customer refused to leave the aircraft voluntarily and law enforcement was asked to come to the gate. We apologize for the overbook situation.”

“after looking for volunteers” “one customer refused leave” – so not much of a volunteer then was he guys! Again, they are apologising for overbooking the flight. Not beating up one of their passengers (or at least allowing one to be beaten up).

As with the Pepsi debacle last week, this should remind us all of the importance of having an experienced PR/Media relations voice at the Top Table. Not reporting into HR, or Sales/Marketing Director, but a Corporate Affairs voice on the Board. There is no-way an experienced Corporate Affairs Director, with a background in media relations would have watched the Pepsi advert and not thought “Whoa, really? Are we actually doing this?”. And in the case of United Airlines, they would have quickly been able to get hold of this story, apologised (for the overbooking, and the process – that clearly doesn’t work – and the violent assault), investigated and promised to improve the process/future approach to overbooking. It wouldn’t have stopped the video going viral, but we wouldn’t all be here talking about another terrible response to a crisis and Googling the definition of “volunteer”

Although, I suppose one good outcome of this may be that United Airlines won’t have to worry about overbooking for a while.

#UPDATE# Since writing this piece the esteemed CEO of United Airlines has emailed all staff and called the customer in question “disruptive and belligerent” – there is good overview on the BBC here, as well as some examples of other airline PR ‘issues’

More detail on the United Airlines story here:

And if you’ve been on a desert island without people, news or the internet, here’s a bit on the Pepsi advert:



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